Nietzsche vs Stoicism

Stoics talk a lot about living according to nature. But what exactly does that mean?

In Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche calls the Stoic phrase “according to nature” a fraud of words.

He writes that living according to nature and living according to life are the same thing. And he rhetorically asks, “how could you do differently?”

It’s a good question. Human beings are products of nature. Evolution produced the human brain, which is the basis for human behavior. So human behavior follows the laws of nature just as rocks follow gravity.

Saying human behavior is natural doesn’t mean it’s good or bad. Bad things are a product of nature just as much as good things are.

When someone says something isn’t natural—take cannibalism for example—they really mean that’s it’s morally wrong.

But that’s the naturalistic fallacy—incorrectly assuming that whatever is natural must be good. Nietzsche claims Stoicism falls into the naturalistic fallacy.

Further, he says Stoics wish to dictate their morals and ideals to nature. That is, Stoics are creating the world in their own image, which is not only arrogant but self-tyranny.

This self-tyranny is found in the Stoic call to regard anything that neither contributes to nor detracts from virtue as a preferred or dispreferred indifferent.

Nietzsche writes that to live is to resist indifference. Living is “valuing, preferring, being unjust, being limited, endeavouring to be different.” He says Stoics imagine that indifference is power, but he doubts anyone can truly live in accordance with indifference.

I’ve described my philosophy as having many features of Stoicism—particularly acknowledging that I have no control over (but sometimes can influence) external events.

But referencing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I disagree that being a good person is sufficient for human flourishing. Needs such as food, water, shelter, and safety are also essential for happiness.

That is, I find Stoic talk about preferred and dispreferred indifferents to be unrealistic for most people (myself included).

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Postmodernism and religious fundamentalism have similar roots

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Religious fundamentalists and postmodernists may have very different political views, but philosophically they are cousins. Both have roots in the Counter-Enlightenment. Both say that factual truth claims are based not on scientific objectivity, but feelings, intuition, experience – and for fundamentalists, revelation.

In Explaining Postmodernism, Stephen R. C. Hicks goes back to the Enlightenment to expose postmodernism’s roots.

As he explains it, the medieval worldview was supernatural, faith based, collectivist, feudal, and believed in God’s will and original sin.

In contrast, modernism is naturalistic, individualistic, based on autonomy, values objectivity over faith, and lead to capitalism, democracy, and human rights.

Postmodernism, however, rejects scientific objectivity in favor of subjectivism, sees most things as social constructions, is collectivist, and socialist.

The Counter-Enlightenment

Christianity felt threatened when Enlightenment thinkers such as Francis Bacon, John Locke, and others promoted reason and scientific objectivity. How could the belief that there is one God who is three persons withstand rational analysis?

Hicks writes that Immanuel Kant sought to defend faith and counter Enlightenment ideas by restricting reason to analysis of one’s internal experiences. That is, reason is incapable of knowing reality itself. There’s an insurmountable barrier between subject (you) and object (the outside world). Other German philosophers took subjectivism all the way, advocating personal feelings over reason.

French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau rejected reason most explicitly. Pining for a mythological past, he thought modern society was pathological and should be replaced. Rousseau was especially protective of religion, rejecting the Enlightenment’s religious tolerance.

Today, fundamentalists often claim that reason cannot answer ultimate questions, and that God’s revelation – the Bible – trumps scientific findings about the origin of the species. In this view, science is as subjective as any personal opinion. Biblical revelation is supreme. And fundamentalists often oppose separation of church and state.

But right-wing Christians reject collectivism, seeing it as a governmental threat to religious liberty. Postmodernists, in contrast, are collectivist and see Christianity, not government, as oppressive. So a split happened somewhere along the way.

The leap to postmodernism

While postmodernists see science as one subjective opinion among many, they reject traditional religious claims as oppressive. But socialism originally claimed to be a scientific endeavor. What happened to that?

Hicks says that right-wing collectivism collapsed with the defeat of National Socialism – the Nazis – in World War II, leaving left-wing and atheistic Marxist socialism as the dominant collectivist ideology.

And by the 1950s mathematical rigor in economics had shown capitalism to be a superior system that increased wealth for both rich and poor, while socialism would fail in the long run. In the 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and liberal economic reforms in China, history proved socialism’s failure.

This left socialists with two choices: abandon socialism and embrace capitalism, or abandon science and reason in favor of subjectivism. So the far left rejected the Enlightenment just as the religious right had done centuries before.

Further, in the early twentieth century the Frankfurt School in Germany expanded Marxist thought beyond economics and into sociology and psychology. Herbert Marcuse popularized this in American universities. Class conflict became conflict between various identity groups.

More recently, intersectionality – a matrix of oppression based on membership in multiple oppressed groups – has amplified identity politics. Identity politics, however, is not just a left-wing phenomenon. Christians, whites, and men have also joined the game.

Postmodernism contradictions

Hicks notes postmodern contradictions and provides a compelling explanation:

  • Postmodernists say truth is relative, but insist that they tell it like it really is.
  • Postmodernists say all cultures deserve equal respect, but that Western civilization is uniquely destructive.
  • Postmodernists promote tolerance but are intolerant of anyone who violates their speech codes (political correctness).
  • Postmodernists say the West is uniquely racist and sexist, yet it’s the West that first championed human rights, identified and addressed ethnocentrism, abolished slavery, and promoted women’s equality.
  • Postmodernists say capitalism is inherently oppressive to the poor, yet the poor in Western countries are much better off than the poor in other countries.

Hicks provides a detailed explanation showing that at its core, postmodernism is absolutist and totalitarian. Relativism and subjectivism are merely rhetorical tools for arguing against Enlightenment values without having to provide real intellectual substance.

Political implications

While right-wing Christians are an older demographic, and their political power is likely to wane in the coming decades, Islamic fundamentalism shows no signs of slowing down. Islamists believe the West – with its Enlightenment values – is a to threat their culture. And they’re willing to kill to stop the spread of Enlightenment values.

In contrast, the postmodernists are far less violent. Their agenda is to invert Western society’s hierarchy. Status is derived from belonging to multiple oppressed groups. And oppressed groups are held to lower standards than dominant groups are.  For example, white people shouldn’t sell burritos, but it’s racist to similarly segregate minorities. And some have called for the abolition of men as a social category (as if men are not a biological reality), but to call for the abolition of women would be misogyny.

Hicks references Nietzsche’s description of weakling morality to describe the postmodern approach. People who cannot confront those who are more powerful feel frustrated and envious. They rationalize their hate by telling themselves they are morally superior because they are oppressed.

But what about those who are too smart to really believe that? They seek to passive-aggressively undermine Enlightenment values. Rhetorical techniques of relativism and subjectivism can cause a society to lose faith in itself. Hicks illustrates this with direct quotes from postmodernists such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Kate Ellis.

Islamic terrorists likewise desire the destruction of Enlightenment values – but with violence. It’s no surprise, then, that postmoderns are often willing to defend terrorists.

What the future will bring is hard to say. Postmodernism might collapse as groups competing for the status of more oppressed than thou turn on each other. Or, considering the recent rise in postmodernists’ violence on college campuses, postmodernism could surge ahead and feel more empowered to use violence.